Thursday, 23 September 2010

Responding to the threat from within: Aidan Nichols OP on modern heresies

I must be feeling particularly apocalyptically inclined this week, because I find myself contemplating the three major threats the Church faces: secularism, Islam and heresy and subversion from within. 

One can debate which is the biggest threat.  Secularism alas, is always with us these days, and therefore a popular choice.  Personally, as I've said before, I worry as much about Islam, for reasons I'll talk more about tomorrow.  But today a little return to the internal challenges to the Church in the form of an appreciation of a recently published book, Fr Aidan Nichols OP's Criticising the Critics Catholic Apologias for Today.

Nichols on heresies and other subversions

Nichols is, I think once of those (relatively few) contemporary theologians a traditionalist can safely read knowing that what he writes is entirely orthodox, and that (unlike many American writers) he will give weight to the tradition.  He himself advocates reading traditionalist writers and taking their arguments on board 'up to a point': fortunately, applying that instruction in reverse, the points on which a traditionalist view might differ to those of Nichols are clearly delineated in the text. 

Criticising the Critics is actually a much needed attempt to put together a response to the most dangerous outright heresies, and some of the more problematic directions in the modern Church.  In particular he tackles modernism in its contemporary manifestations, including the deformation of catechetics; the excesses of ecumenism and interreligous dialogue under the heading of neo-Gnosticism; the problems of academic scriptural exegesis; the idea that God is not 'Father' under feminism; congregationalism, under a chapter 'For Liberal protestants: How Christ is Priest'; life issues; the sexualisation of our culture; and the idea of Christendom.

The primary value of this book is not, I think, in the originality of the material, but in its concise analysis of problematic trends in the Church, and of marshalling and explaining the magisterial and best theological responses to them.

The volume is fairly slim (one hundred and seventy three pages including notes) so it is necessarily only a starting point on this task. So while the chapter on the sexualisation of our culture contains a very useful exposition largely based on the Dictionnaire de théologique catholique, for example, it doesn’t take up the expositions on the subject offered by the current Pope. And there several other topics one would have liked to see covered in the book.

But works that systematically respond to contemporary errors and misdirections in a helpful way are relatively hard to come by, and this one is both entertaining and informative.

The diminution of Scripture

One of the particular joys of Nichols' approach is that he doesn't limit himself to outright heresies, but also tackles some of the problematic directions that have led to the predominance of what one might call "Catholic-lite".

Most modern Catholics, for example, when confronted with Scripture whether in the form of praying the psalms in the Office, or just reading the Bible, struggle.  And buying one a contemporary commentaries won't, in my view, help much.

The problem is that Catholics are no longer taught to understand Scripture in the way it has always been understood by the Church. 

In part that's an unintended side-effect of the liturgical reforms in my view.  Whereas in the traditional Mass, the propers (mostly psalm verses) and Gospel of the day generally connect up and teach a particular message, reinforced by repetition, the continuous nature of the new lectionary and de facto stripping out of the propers drowns out that contextualisation of key texts of Scripture. 

In part the problem comes about because of the loss of connection to the interpretations of the Church Fathers.   Blessed Cardinal Newman, for example, advocated every family having a copy of the Catena Aurea of St Thomas Aquinas (a compilation of patristic texts linked to each Gospel verse) in their home, and translated it into English to that end.  It is telling that the most comprehensive contemporary patristics project, the Ancient Christian Commentaries on the Scripture series, is actually an ecumenical effort.

But in very large part, the reason Catholics most avoid Scripture, or approach it only in a faux-lectio divina "how do I feel emotionally about it" mode, comes down to the disconnection of academic exegesis from theology, and it is this that Nichols tackles.

Nichols on the historico-critical method

His chapter directed at academic exegetes usefully draws together some key points of the emerging critique of the historical-critical method.

First Nichols points to the rationalism and historicism inherent in the method that have essentially rendered academic exegesis “existentially irrelevant”.

Then he draws on recent critiques that seek a return to the idea that one must read scripture ‘not in splendid isolation but as a disciple in the company of saints’.

Certainly anyone who has suffered through academic Scriptural studies with its tedious preoccupation with questions of authorship, dating, the path of development of the text, and other philological questions will enjoy his citation of Bockmuehl’s view that the reductionism inherent in this method is akin to ‘restricting the study of a Stradavari to the alpine softwood industry of Trentino’.

Nichols' book seeks to contribute to a project of restoring a sense of ‘serene confidence’ to Catholic Christianity after a period of doubt and turmoil. It is an objective we should all support.


A Canberra Observer said...

maybe they will publish a reviw on CathNews. But then again, not.

Sounds like a very interesting and useful work.

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